Baltimore region's reaction to snow isn't amusing anymore

Big snow, yeah, but we should be used to this by now.

The first time I experienced Central Maryland's reaction to snow — preemptive school closings, alarmist television and radio reports, panic buying of milk and bread, dogs curling up with cats — I was shocked and amused.

I had moved here from a place that had lots of snow. Life did not stop there. People did not panic. Schools rarely closed. When an overnight storm left a foot of snow, the town plowed the roads and even opened the sidewalks by breakfast.

So you can imagine what I thought when I experienced the Baltimore area's response: government offices, schools and businesses shuttered for a day or two, many roads never plowed, an atmosphere of tension, helplessness and anger. (Never shall I forget being stuck on the Jones Falls Expressway for three hours during a modest afternoon snow back in the 1980s. Traffic came to a halt. I got bored and started reading the driver's manual. I got hungry and felt around the floor of my car, hoping to find a day-old French fry. Instead, a single, faded yellow Peanut M&M, extracted from under the passenger seat, helped me survive the ordeal.)

The thing is, it didn't take 20 inches of snow for Baltimore and suburbs to come to a standstill. It could happen with just two or three inches, and often with the mere rumor of snow.

The explanation for this peculiar behavior was this: Historically, the Baltimore area had relatively mild winters. It never saw snow on a regular basis. So the city and surrounding counties never geared up for snow. People have only limited experience driving in snow, so they panic easily. Schools close out of a concern for public safety. Because the municipalities do such a mediocre job of clearing side streets — it's a tradition, actually — people expect to be stuck at home for several days. Thus the mad rush to stock up on food and toilet paper.

I used to think all that was funny. I don't anymore.

I realize we just had the biggest snowstorm in our history, but this isn't the first time the Baltimore region saw more than 20 inches of snow in a single spell. Starting shortly after I arrived here, in the mid-1970s, there were big storms every few years as well as numerous smaller storms that still managed to paralyze the area. Snowmageddon dumped 44 inches on us in five days just six years ago, remember?

So, the argument that Central Marylanders are snow wimps because the region doesn't get much snow is dated and parochial. We've actually had a lot of experience with snow and the problems it creates — enough to say that allowing snow, even a blizzard, to dominate our lives for days on end is inexcusable.

As Sarah Palin says about almost everything: Enough is enough!

When you add scientific predictions of more extreme weather as a result of climate change, along with the increasing accuracy of meteorological projections, there's really no reason for municipalities in this part of the country to be under-prepared, under-equipped and slow to recover.

That is what I assume to be the problem: The city, counties and state have not fully geared up for big snow in Central Maryland. Some of that might come from a calculation that the region does not have enough snowstorms to justify the purchase of additional plows, snow-blowers and front-end loaders that might sit for months unused in public works yards. Some of this might be simple austerity. Some of it might be poor management of resources.

But I suspect most of it has to do with the dated belief that we don't get all that much snow, so let's worry about it when the time comes.

I used to be very forgiving of Central Maryland's delicate condition. Not anymore.

Since 1980, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been keeping track of weather and climate disasters that cause $1 billion or more in damage, and guess what? Most of those disasters — hurricanes, blizzards, droughts and wildfires — have occurred since 2003. Last year alone, there were 10 weather and climate disasters that caused losses exceeding $1 billion, according to the NOAA.

Given what science tells us about man-made climate change, it makes sense to gear up for big snow. It might not come every year, but when it does, we should expect the worst. Paying for this falls into the same category as paying for infrastructure improvements: It's the cost of living at a time when big bills come due for all manner of things that we — and our parents — neglected or abused.

One of my neighbors decided a couple of years ago to buy a snowblower. Snowmageddon taught him a lesson, and he probably believes we're going to see more big snow. So he forked over the money for a machine he might use only two or three days a year, and some years never. Guy looks like a genius today. He should run for mayor.

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